Thai Dogs and Englishmen

The other day my daughter got out the shoebox; our library of analogue photographs. It turned out to be another late night, but some memories were brought into focus which is always welcome.

From 1992 until 1998 I lived on the beach in Thailand; first here on Koh Samet

photo: Wikipedia

then here on Koh Chang.


When we arrived on Koh Chang it was a very quiet place with no paved roads, no mains electricity and no girly bars. We arrived from Koh Samet by boat with our sea kayaks, surfboards and sails (wind was our thing) and our dog, Felix. I know what you’re going to say… “Felix? A dog?” and I would have to agree.  Felix is, and has always been, a cat, but our Felix had been named by a German tourist, and there is a slight possibility that Germans are oblivious to this fact. Anyway, I digress…

We had come to occupy our newly purchased piece of beach at White Sands complete with two bamboo huts, kitchen/restaurant and, we were soon to discover, resident dog. She was a small red bitch very similar to a fox and I named her Cringe. Despite a couple of warnings from Felix, Cringe  decided to stay and within a few weeks presented us with a brand new litter of puppies. We were less than delighted at the prospect of many new mouths to feed as we were barely making ends meet at this stage. But, hey ho, rice and eggs were cheap at that time and we were serving a few meals to travellers which meant leftovers for dogs. The puppies were adorable of course and very popular with our guests, but over time we were left with just one, a strawberry blonde female which I named Hen. It’s a hard life for a beach dog in Thailand; at that time there was no vet and no sterilization programme on the island and the Thai people are not generally known for their fondness of pets.

So let’s fast forward a little – there we were, on the beach with Felix, Cringe and Hen having a lovely time in the sun, giving food and shelter to travellers in return for the means to pay our mortgage, and expecting our first baby. There being no health provision to speak of on the island back in 1994 I had to go to the mainland to give birth.

polaroid028A couple of weeks later our new family of three returned home to find that Cringe was once again pregnant but also looking very poorly. She had picked up a virus or possibly some poison and was very out of sorts. On our second night home she delivered two boy puppies outside our bedroom door then skulked off into the jungle and was never seen again. So there I was with not only a new baby who woke me up through the night for food, but also two puppies who cried all night for food. I was exhausted and not really sure if the watered down cow’s milk I was feeding the puppies with a syringe was doing them any good. At this time, Hen, their half sister, was about 9 months old and had not had her first season. She wasn’t even slightly interested in the puppies, but in my desperation I made her lie in a cardboard box and put them in with her. Their natural instinct was to suckle, and that’s what they did, and miraculously Hen’s teats swelled and she began to produce milk. I had never heard of this before, but apparently it sometimes happens and boy, was I thankful! Hen did a brilliant job and surprised us all and probably herself too. 

The miracle puppies were named Butch and Sundance. Poor old Felix had lived a long life, unusual for a beach dog, but gave up the ghost soon after our daughter was born, and little Butch succumbed to some other forgotten fate before he was fully grown.

Sundance with an Aussie visitor who’s name now escapes me. If you know him, say Hi!

Hen was our snake killer and caretaker should we ever be away from home; Sundance was the nursemaid. He took on the job of childminder and was our daughter’s (and later our son’s) constant companion. Wherever she was, Sundance would be close by, watching and listening. Should any stranger approach the baby, Sundance would take a step or two nearer just to make his presence felt.

His greatest feat of heroism took place one hot afternoon when I was feeding baby Nee in the shade of our great tree on the beach. Sitting cross-legged on a mat, quietly sharing that special bond that breast-feeding creates, I saw Sundance suddenly spring to his feet before us and start barking. This was very out of character but he was not to be shushed. His gaze was fixed just beyond my right elbow which was cradling Nee’s head. I looked round to be faced with a snake rearing in defence, it’s head only two feet away from my baby’s. My heart was in my mouth. Something in my subconscious told me not to make any sudden movement, so I turned, rose and sidled out of range as slowly and smoothly as I could, while  Sundance created the diversion. He could then finally move in on the snake, knowing that we were safely out of the way. He really earned his dinner that day!

Our home Yakah Bungalow in January 1997

Books in My Life

In recent years to mark World Book Day the BBC has aired a fortnight’s worth of daily shows called “My Life in Books” in which a variety of well-known personalities tell us about their five favourite books. These often include something unforgettable from their childhood, something that spurred them on to new beginnings or something they read to their own children.

I thought I’d have a go myself and found it a lot more difficult than I’d thought. Five books is very few (when you are as old as me) so I decided some categories would help me compile that definitive list. This is what I came up with….

A Childhood Memory A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. I had two copies: this lovely hardback edition with illustrations by Hilda Boswell; and a smaller edition with woodcut illustrations which was in black and white. Not so pretty, but easier to carry about. I loved the way the poet knew exactly what being a child was all about; that feeling of imprisonment when you are ill and confined to the boredom of bed; the thrill of bonfire night; the resentment when it’s still light in summer but you have to go to bed anyway. I think this is where I really learnt to find magic in the humdrum of everyday life and use my imagination to create my own little world to ecape into.

Reignition The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. I was in my mid twenties and had been far too busy to read a book for some time, when I came across this by accident. I was living in Leicester and one of my favourite haunts was a small building on the High Street which housed a fantastic restaurant called Bread and Roses in the basement, a radical bookshop called Blackthorn Books (and my future employer) at street level, and a busy meeting room upstairs where the anarchist group (and others) met. This book jumped out at me one day as I made my way through the bookshop for Akram’s famous felafels downstairs, so I bought it and have never looked back. Everyone I have subsequently recommended it to has loved it; it’s so unusual. I’ve since read several more of Banks’s novels, but not yet dived into any of his science-fiction which is published under the author name Iain M. Banks. Here’s Will Hill’s story.

One to Read Aloud Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. This was a gift to my daughter from her grandmother, my lovely mum. It’s a delightful rhyming  I-Spy book which features many favourite characters from fairytales and nursery rhymes such as Tom Thumb, Mother Hubbard, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Robin Hood, Baby Bunting and more. The Ahlbergs wrote and illustrated many gorgeous children’s books, and were also regular customers in Blackthorn Books where I worked for a couple of years in the late eighties.

A Lesson in HistoryThe Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes. I was born in Australia back in the days of the 10 shilling passage, but the family returned to England before my 2nd birthday so I have no memories of life Down Under.

I got a yearning to find out what and who had shaped my country of birth, and this is the book I settled down to read. It’s a hefty tome at 603 pages with another 44 pages of notes at the back, but is all-consuming and probably the most gut-wrenching, thought-provoking, shocking and horrific book I’ve ever read. It is a history of the transportation of convicts to Australia from 1787 to 1868.

“The very day we landed upon the fatal shore
The planters stood around us
Full twenty score or more
They ranked us up like horses
And sold us out of hand
They chained us up to pull the plough
                                           Upon van Diemen’s Land”

A New DiscoveryThe Crossroads  by Niccolo Ammaniti. I bought this at my local bookshop as part of one of those 3 for 2 deals, and it turned out to be an inspired choice. It’s very different to what I’d been reading around the time. The writing style is very young, fresh and modern. The story centres around a teenage boy struggling to hold together the life he shares with his criminal father and his associates. It is darkly comic, exposing the oafishness and violence in Italy’s underclass, and weaves together several sub-plots and sidetracks. I found it hugely enjoyable, though disturbing, and have picked up most of Ammaniti’s other books anytime I’ve spotted them. He writes mostly from the perspective of teenagers or young adults; coming of age stories with a twist.

This post was Freshly Pressed, for which I’d like to thank WordPress. I’d also like to say hello to everyone who visited my blog on the strength of that selection and say I hope I won’t disappoint. Keep on reading, I know I will! Click on Librarium for more books.

Endless Summers

My grandfather, George Bennett, was the farm manager on a Hampshire estate belonging to some titled types who owned a broadsheet and bred race horses. There was some arable, some sheep and some cattle and for four weeks every summer as well as many school holidays throughout the year it was my home and playground. My parents were busy in their shop and I was left in the care of my grandmother from whom I learned to cook, darn, make ginger beer and use a twin-tub washing machine.

The farm provided endless opportunity for my entertainment and childish fantasies. There was an old disused dairy still equipped with cream and butter-making equipment, pint and ⅓pt milk bottles (the small ones were for school milk) and foil discs for bottle tops. I once came across an orphaned baby rabbit and took it to the dairy in a shoe box, knowing that my grandmother would not have let it into the house. I spent an afternoon “nursing” it and the next day it had completely vanished. This was my first lesson in not meddling with wildlife.

Bordering the yard was a row of former farmworkers’ cottages; tiny one-up one-down homes still complete with fireplaces and stoves, hurricane lamps and strange tools. Although the farm was run with modern machinery which George had introduced after the war, the old cart shed was still there, full of obsolete tools, machines and vehicles. Today to allow a child in there would be seen as a health and safety hazard – to me it was the best history lesson I could have had.

Adjacent to the farmyard was the wood yard which was not part of George’s domain, and therefore forbidden territory. I made the acquaintance of Jayne, daughter of one of the woodmen, and gained access to that secret place. I found the tea room where the workers came twice a day to drink their dark brew and look through their girly mags – quite an education for a young girl who had no idea about the “birds and bees”.

Through the heavy gates of the yard was the crater of a lake that had been drained during the war so as not to be a landmark for enemy bombers. A herd of fallow deer was kept here behind fifteen feet chain link fences. The gamekeepers used the fence to display their kill: – grey squirrels, magpies and beautiful jays. I always felt a chill seeing these corpses; my grandmother told me they stole the pheasants’ eggs and so were killed and their bodies displayed as a deterrent to others.

Through the hedge at the back of Granny’s veg patch and along the track was the kitchen garden that supplied the “big house” with all its produce. It was surrounded by a red brick and flint wall and was the most beautiful and orderly vegetable garden I’d ever laid eyes on. From time to time I would accompany Granny here with a brace of pigeon or pheasant which were exchanged with the head gardener for a basket of glasshouse grown peaches and the sweetest yellow tomatoes which I’d eat on the way home, warm from the sun.

I made my dens under the arches of the bridge that crossed the “lake” and in the beech woods which were subsequently laid waste in the storms of 1987. It was a mainly solitary existence and I wonder whether it paved the way for my often solitary existence now where I’m happy and contented in my own company.

*This piece was inspired by an Estate Agent’s brochure advertising the sale of The Orangery, Hackwood Park, Basingstoke for £1,490,000 in June 2012, a former gardener’s cottage.